This interview was conducted to mark the 300th issue of Classic Rock magazine, which launched in 1998. The anniversary issue is available to purchase online (opens in new tab), and also features interviews with Ozzy Osbourne, Gene Simmons, Def Leppard, Alice Cooper, Rick Nielsen, Slash and many more.
Combined, the blues gunslinger and journeyman shrieker have notched up almost 40 studio albums during Classic Rock’s lifetime (don’t get us started on the live records, production work, cameos and one-night stands).
Amid this epic discography, some of the loftiest peaks came when Hughes and Bonamassa joined forces in Black Country Communion, the Anglo-American supergroup completed by drummer Jason Bonham and keyboard player man Derek Sherinian.
Our first issue came out in 1998. How were your careers going back then?
Joe: I was just a kid – twenty-one years old – and about to embark on this journey. I’d just signed a development deal with Epic Records and was starting work with [producer] Tom Dowd on what would become my first solo album, A New Day Yesterday. Honestly, I wouldn’t change a thing. The only advice I’d give myself in 1998 would be: don’t put a shelf life on your career. Because my big moment came when I played the Albert Hall, days before my thirty-second birthday.
Glenn: In the late nineties I was figuring out what I wanted to do. I’ve always changed horses midstream, as you know. I’d got sober for the first time, in 1991. But let’s just say I went out and tested the waters again – unsuccessfully. I had my last cocktail and drug in November 1997. I’d decided to take a year off touring, stay in LA to work on myself. So in ninety-eight all I was doing was staying sober, living a joyous and free life. My first sober album was The Way It Is .
Do you think you can hear your changing circumstances on that record?
Glenn: You can hear it in the lyrics. I write about the human condition, I don’t write fairy tales. For me it’s all about portraying my soberness onto the planet, without bashing people’s minds in. People think I’m a religious nut or whatever. It’s not religion. Living a spiritual progression is what I’m all about.
Black Country Communion began in 2009. What was your vision for the band?
Joe: It was obvious when we started playing that Black Country Communion was going to be a classic-rock band with an early-to-mid-seventies sound. When Glenn and I play together, we finish each other’s sentences, and that’s just how we hammer down. I would say the most adventurous album was the first one, because we didn’t know what to expect – and we did it in five days!
Glenn: Joe and I came up with those first songs – One Last Soul, Black Country, The Great Divide – and it was: “Okay, here we go!”
Joe: The launch party, at John Henry’s rehearsal studios, honestly, it was the most exhilarating gig I’ve ever played. I’ve never felt anything like it. It was on fire. Like: “Holy shit, this is a special group of cats.”
How about your career highlights outside of that group?
Joe: The fact I graced your cover as a solo artist twice is something I’ll always be very proud of. You guys took a chance on me – a kid from Los Angeles – and it panned out. It’s pretty awesome to be on a magazine cover. But sometimes you can’t help but look at the photo and go: “Oh god, I don’t look great…”
Glenn: Apart from BCC, I think Soul Mover  was a keeper, and First Underground Nuclear Kitchen  was another good one. Joe’s got more records than I’ve made – and he’s younger than I am! But I do believe in brand new music. I never make the same album twice.
Do you think there’s still good rock music being made?
Joe: Absolutely. I think the issue that comes with being a new rock artist is that everything you put out is judged by the past. Like, I think Rival Sons and Greta Van Fleet make great rock records. A bunch of people say: “They kinda sound like…” Well, I kinda sound like fucking Eric Johnson. It doesn’t discount the quality of the work, just because you were born thirty years after.
When you’re talking about wood and strings, a drum kit and a keyboard, it’s difficult to come up with an immaculate conception. It’s almost impossible. But, y’know, Halestorm – those guys are great. Joanne Shaw Taylor, she’s doing great. She’s not Bonnie Raitt, but she has the ability to have a lane of her own like that.
Glenn, have you heard anyone lately who could inherit your title ‘The Voice’?
Glenn: Jay Buchanan from Rival Sons ticks all the boxes for me, as a great voice, entertaining lyricist, good melodies. He’s got it all. I’ve said this to your mag a bunch of times. Although they’re not new any more, I’ve been friends with the guys in Rival Sons for twelve years and I’ve listened to them progress. For me they’re the greatest rock band we have.
Have you ever caught yourself saying: “It was better in my day”?
Joe: All the time. We rehearse in Nashville, and I befriend other bands. And the technology that goes into a concert now, with the lights and guitar rigs… I’ll say: “Back in my day we used a coffee can with a lightbulb!” I’m not saying it’s bad, it’s just a paradigm shift from how I started.
Glenn: I must say, I want to be impressed. I’m always hoping that I get my mind blown with every performance or new album that comes out.
Joe, you once told me that if you had a time machine you’d go back to 1966. Are you frustrated to be making music in the current era?
Joe: You can only be born when you’re born. But I would have loved to see those gigs at the Marquee in sixty-six and sixty-seven. I mean, you’d have John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers, The Who, The Animals – and a guy named James Hendrix – all on the same weekend. That’s when the shit was happening, when the playbook was being written.
How do you feel about the rise of the online guitarist?
Joe: I think they’re finding ways to make lemonade out of rocks. Because in today’s age, it’s so difficult to sell a record. It’s like, you dedicate your life to making music, and for some of these guys there’s no platform for them to monetise it. So the fact that some of them make a damn good living giving online lessons or whatever it is, I applaud what they’re doing.
What has been your biggest professional disappointment over the past twenty-four years?
Joe: There’s been some songs I wrote that fell on deaf ears. But my whole thing is more about a body of work than just certain songs. If people get it at all, that’s better than most.
Glenn: Everything I’ve done – good, bad or indifferent – is a lesson for the next thing. I learn lessons as I trudge happily along this road. So I’ve done things like California Breed , which was a good album, but we should have done more work live. It didn’t work out. I’ve just turned seventy, fellas. All of a sudden it snuck up on me, like: “Hang on a minute – I’m seventy!” So I don’t look back that much. I stay in the moment. But I’ve done a lot of bloody albums, and I’m really happy with the legacy I’m about to leave.
Joe, how many guitars did you own back in 1998?
Joe: A dozen, maybe. Now I have almost five hundred.
Glenn: Bloody hell.
Joe: But I haven’t been buying guitars the last six or seven months, because the prices are extremely inflated, especially on old stuff. I’ll go after the occasional unicorn, but other than that I’m happy. I’ve proven my point as a guitar collector. I was pretty good at it for a long time.
What do you think are the biggest threats to rock’n’roll right now?
Joe: Having a place where bands can go in, play to a hundred people, sell your merch, make a little bit of money, keep the band going for another show – that’s important. But especially here in America, it’s like the farm system for live music has been decimated over the last twenty years. They just can’t keep the doors open. Then you throw in eighteen months’ stoppage and a bunch of regulations on top – it’s a tough time.
Did you see Metallica’s point in the battle with Napster in 2000?
Glenn: Oh my god, are you kidding me? One hundred per cent.
Joe: The thing is, the guy that did Napster was too soon. He got stomped out quickly. It wasn’t really Metallica, it was more the major labels. I really feel that the royalty rates of streaming need to come up to pay for the artist’s work, and especially for songwriters – they really get the short end of the stick. Living on fractional pennies, it’s tough. You get those stories where someone got streamed ten million times and they get a cheque for seventeen hundred dollars.
Glenn: I was going to chip in with that. It really sucks if you’re a writer.
Which musician’s death since 1998 hit you hardest? We’ve lost Eddie Van Halen, BB King, Prince…
Glenn: All those people you just mentioned, of course. But for me, Keith Emerson. That was a tough one to deal with. One of my dearest friends. We got together every Sunday in LA for lunch.
Joe: The shock was Prince. You didn’t see that coming. And Tom Petty. Y’know, guys in the prime of life. But the one that friends in my genre still talk about is BB. Because you felt you could set your watch by a BB King show. Like, no matter how bad your day was, somewhere in the world BB was getting on stage. So in 2015, when he passed, you were like: “Oh, it really is the end of an era.”
Joe: These are the people that shaped not just music, but our lives. Because music is our lives.
In 2014, Peter Frampton snatched a smartphone from someone in the audience. Do you appreciate being filmed at your shows?
Glenn: No, I do not. But it’s never gonna stop. I go out there every night and I know it’s gonna be on YouTube, so what the hell.
Joe: I can’t see them, so I don’t care. It’s like: "Well, if you want to sit there and give yourself carpal tunnel by filming the whole gig…"
Will you be happy to see the back of the Zoom interview?
Glenn: Oh god, yes. It’s not my favourite cup of tea.
Joe: I’m gonna be very happy when humanity goes back to embracing life in three dimensions, not sitting there behind a screen. I like interaction. That’s what makes us all intrinsically human, our ability to sit in a room together and have a laugh. Without: “Oh, my internet has gone down.”
Is rock’n’roll still a passion for you, as opposed to a job?
Glenn: It has to be, for me. I can’t do it otherwise. I live and breathe music. I’m seventy years old, and I’m not trying to be a teenager here, but I’ve gotta keep fit and stay healthy – mentally, physically and emotionally – and I’ve got to be ready to go at all times.
Joe: You can’t fake it, that’s the thing. The audience knows when you’re not there with them. As long as I go on stage and it triggers that same emotion as when I first picked up the guitar – like: “How cool is this?!”
Is there a good time and place to read Classic Rock?
Glenn: I get a subscription. I take it on the road and, of course, I read every single bloody word. We should talk about [late CR writers] Pete Makowski and Malcolm Dome. Two of my dear friends. We’re gonna miss you. I know you’re up there. In the seventies, Pete was on the road with me, David Coverdale, Ritchie, Jon and Ian. Those two boys loved to have a couple of drinks, bless them.
You’re both so prolific. Lockdown must have been torture.
Joe: It was frustrating to be told you can’t do something that you’ve done your whole life. But I feel like we’re moving on now.
Glenn: I’ve just been writing songs all the way through. The Dead Daisies is going well. We’re about to make a new album.
Joe: I have touring dates through the rest of the year, then Kevin [Shirley, producer] and I are going back to Santorini [a Greek island] to make another record there. It’ll be great to turn off the world for a minute.
Glenn: And just to end this, Joe and I will be getting together at some point to make album number five as Black Country Communion. It’s just about finding the window of opportunity. And I will be there.
The Dead Daisies tour Europe (opens in new tab) next month, while Joe Bonamassa hits the road in the US (opens in new tab) in August.